By U.B. Acharya
After the victory of veteran Novak Djokovic at the US Open Tennis Championships last weekend, the most important topic among the tennis experts (Serena Vs the Chair umpire controversy not withstanding), was “Where is the next generation of men’s tennis champions?”
To give a background, during the last two years, all the eight Major titles were shared between the three geriatrics, namely Roger Federer, now 37 (three), Rafael Nadal now 32 (three) and Novak Djokovic now 31 (two). To add to the misery of the so called next gen players, not even one of them reached the finals! It is somewhat intriguing to see that the same three players have won 32 of the 40 titles during the past ten years.
Since the beginning of the open era in 1968, the tennis fraternity has regularly produced teenage prodigies who have gone on to win multiple Major titles. For example, in the 1970s, Bjorn Borg at 18 (11 Majors), Jimmy Connors at 21 (Eight Majors) and John McEnroe also at 21 (Seven Majors) shot to fame by winning a Major title for the first time. But the important point is that ten other players like Stan Smith, Illie Nastase, Arthur Ashe, etc. also figured in the list of major title winners. Similarly in the next two decades, while there were teen aged prodigies such as Boris Becker (at 17), Michael Chang (at 17), Stefan Edberg (at 21), Andre Agassi (at 21) and Pete Sampras (at 19) and in the first decade of the 21st century, three new players by the name of Roger Federer (at 21), Rafael Nadal (at 19) and Novak Djokovic (at 20) won their first Major title, there were quite a few other players who won a couple of major titles. But from 2010 onwards, the scene is completely dominated by these three big names.
Nadal explained that either the top three have been special or the emerging players have not been special enough. This is not only a correct assessment but also obvious. Federer believes that the current ranking method of awarding huge points for Major events makes it difficult for a new comer to move up the ranking ladder. Therefore, they are continuously drawn to play against seeded players in the early round of the Majors. To win seven five-set matches in a row is a tall order for many emerging players. It needs not only talent but also physical stamina and mental toughness. Federer advises the younger players to move to the net and volley more often against players like Nadal or Djokovic because they are such good returning machines that they cannot be beaten from the base line.
There is yet another angle to this puzzle. While tennis has always been considered as “individual sport”, today the top level tennis seems more like a team sport. For example, a top tennis player has in his team a coach, a physical trainer, a physical therapist, a schedule manager and his family for moral support. This is quite expensive and may cost about $50,000 per week and a young tennis player may not afford this kind of expense.
Again, experience plays a very important factor in winning difficult matches and this comes with maturity. Also there is a lot of media attention and mental pressure as you move up each round in a grand slam event. With expert team backing them up, the top three players have overcome this pressure very well and extended their success and longevity beyond expectations. This has eliminated the entire present day 25-30 year old tennis players (mind you they are good) from winning a major title. Some of the examples are Tsonga, Monfils, Isner, Raonic, Anderson, Dimitrov, Berdych, etc.
Who are the Next-Gen players of this decade? Three players namely Dominic Thiem at 24, Lucas Pouille also at 24 and Nick Kyrgios at 23 have been in the professional circuit for the past three or four years, and though they have occasionally beat the big three in some ATP tournament and won the event, they have not made a big run on the Major title. Next up are Jared Donaldson, Daniil Medvedev, Alexander (‘Sascha’) Zverev, Hyeon Chung, Borna Coric (all five at 21) and the latest sensations Stefanos Tsitsipas (pronounced Sisipah) 20, Denis Shapovalov 18 and Felix Auger-Aliassime also 18.
There is now a ray of hope for these next gen players. Age is certainly catching up with the three champions now, and Federer at 37 is definitely showing the signs of his age. Hence, I am earnestly hoping to see a new young champion arriving in 2019. The above mentioned eight players just have to make a run for it. My money is on South Korean Chung to break the glass ceiling, a la Naomi Osaka of Japan!
[The author is a retired oil company executive who writes occasionally in ‘Star of Mysore’ and ‘Sportstar’]